The Covington Affair: Feeding Kids to the Outrage Mob

The media had a disastrous showing last week that culminated with the discredited Buzzfeed story about President Trump ordering Michael Cohen to lie to Congress. Instead of recognizing their failures, many in the media simply attacked their critics. Somehow they managed to do even worse this week with an infuriating story that showed a lack of standards and discretion that was reminiscent of the Kavanaugh saga. 

It started on Friday with a video clip going around Twitter showing a bunch of high school kids wearing MAGA hats surrounding an elderly Native American man (Nathan Phillips) playing the drums. In the video, there was one kid who was face to face with Mr. Phillips and appeared to be smirking while others kids chanted and sang with the drum beat. The short clip was accompanied by descriptions that set a particular narrative. Shortly after, the Washington Post printed an account which confirmed that narrative. The rest of the mainstream media (and most of the partisan media on both sides) followed suit. People were outraged. The kids were denounced by politicians, celebrities, and countless journalists. My initial reaction was that the kids appeared to be behaving disrespectfully and should probably be disciplined by their parents. I sent a tweet mildly criticizing their behavior,  but I felt uncomfortable highlighting it too much because they were just kids. Before we even get to the specifics: The national news media had no business making a national story out of an interaction between HS kids and a man. No one was hurt and there was no real national news angle to the story, but the whole press irresponsibly ran with it anyways (and it was rather obviously because of the hats the kids were wearing). Here is the narrative that the media presented:

Mr. Phillips was an innocent elderly protester who was marching to himself when these MAGA kids surrounded him, began taunting him, started chanting racist slogans at him, and blocking his path. Further, this was evidence of the bigotry created and justified by Trump supporters. 

This was aided by Mr. Phillips, who gave the following account to the Washington Post (take note that this was presented as an accurate account of what happened and the media did not even try to get the other side before publishing): 


Mr. Phillips did countless more interviews, including to CNN, where he gave similar accounts. These outlets highlighted his status as a veteran and his calm demeanor to really emphasize that he was a sympathetic victim and the whole story was that these evil racist kids chose to harass him.

Thus the press unleashed an outrage mob that went to work on trying to destroy these kids. Various people on social media started trying to identify these kids. The result was inevitably that the wrong people were identified, and countless kids and their families started get death threats. Further, in response to the outrage and media coverage, the school, public officials, and their diocese condemned the kids.

Then I started to get tweets on Friday night suggesting that the media wasn’t telling the full story. Multiple videos began to circulate, including one that was a full 2 hours and showed everything that transpired. As soon as I started watching these videos, I saw that the story that had been presented to the public by almost every outlet throughout the day was not accurate. The more I dug, the worse it got. Let’s review some of the claims made and compare it to what really happened:

Claim:  The kids were chanting “build that wall” 

Verdict: False. There have been over 8 videos from various angles released covering what happened. No one has been able to find any examples of any of the kids chanting, “build that wall”.

Claim: Phillips said he was looking for an exit when the kid, Nick Sandmann, “blocked” his way and wouldn’t allow him to retreat. Phillips further claimed that the kids surrounded him during the CNN interview.

Verdict: False. Video emerged shortly after showing it was Mr. Phillips that chose to enter the crowd of kids. The video also clearly shows Nick Sandmann had been standing in the same spot for some time when it was Phillips who approached him and starts drumming directly in front of his face. Phillips had plenty of room to retreat or go around Sandmann. In fact, the people actually behind him are all with his group (note several are holding cameras, almost making it appear like a set up). Instead, he engaged in the standoff that we witness in the shorter clip. After being asked about this aspect, Phillips shifted his story:

Claim: Phillips then changed his story to claim he had entered the crowd of kids to try to intervene in a confrontation between the kids and another group of activists and de-escalate the situation with a peaceful song.

Verdict: False. The student’s statement described that they had started chanting to drown out the racist and homophobic activists harassing them (more on this below). The video clearly shows this to be accurate. While some kids were engaging those activists, most of the crowd had separated and was doing a school chant in order to drown out the harassment from the those activists. That is the crowd that Phillips chose to enter. They thought he was joining them and started singing and dancing to the beat of his drum. One kid did do what appears to be a “tomahawk chop” motion to the music on the video. Phillips then chooses to stand in front of Nick Sandmann’s face and beat the drum. It turns into a somewhat childish standoff. This is confirmed after when the kids are called to the busses and choose to maturely walk away. A man who refers to Phillips as “grandpa” then started yelling about how Phillips “won”. Phillips and those around him start to celebrate at this announcement. The same man also made the argument that it was Phillips against all the kids and the kids “can’t compete,” suggesting they viewed it as some sort of competition. All of this is hardly the behavior of someone who was trying to be mature and keep the peace. It is worth noting that the same grandson got into a confrontation with another student earlier and said the kids should “go back to Europe”. When Sandmann saw that confrontation developing, he is seen signalling to his classmate to cut it out. In other words, it was the kid that was maligned and targeted by the media who made an effort to keep things calm. 

Claim: Phillips further claimed that the reason he had to get involved was that the Catholic Covington students were in the process of “attacking these four black individuals”. Philips also describes the students as “the beast” and the activists as their “prey”.  

Verdict: False. This is a pure smear from Phillips. The individuals he is referring to are known as Black Hebrew Israelites, an activist group of bigoted supremacists. The extended video was actually shot by one of them and clearly shows them harassing and attacking the kids for an extended period of time. They yelled racist and homophobic slurs at the kids from Catholic Covington, who mostly responded by heckling them with rational responses. 

Ex: Activist: Your President is a homosexual.

Kids: “Who cares?” 

Ex: Activists: “You give fagg*ts rights”

Kids: “Whoahhh”

Activist: “The bible condemns homosexuality”

Kids: “They are still humans” 


Phillips actually suggested those bigoted activists were saying some things that were “true” and the kids were “offended” by having to hear the truth. 

Claim: Phillips was identified as a Vietnam veteran by many publications and outlets. 

Verdict: False. This is only relevant because many outlets cited his status as a Vietnam veteran to create a more sympathetic story line. Phillips himself mentioned Vietnam repeatedly in his interview with CNN to support his actions. Further, there is evidence that Phillips has previously told media outlets he was overseas during Vietnam, but that was not reflected in his service records. Phillips did serve in the military from 1972-1976, but he was never in Vietnam.

In addition to almost everything Phillips claimed about the interaction being proven false by video evidence, he consistently attacked the character of the kids involved to the media in vicious ways. Phillips baselessly accused them of being racist, hateful, and viewing him as “less than human.” When confronted with Nick Sandmann’s statement describing what occurred, Phillips refused a substantive response and instead said the kids looked like a “lynch mob”.

Now compare that to the kid who was targeted by the media: Nick Sandmann released a statement on Saturday night explaining what had transpired throughout the incident. His statement tracks almost perfectly with the video. While some can dispute his mindset or what he describes as his motives, the actual actions he describes are a perfect fit with what appears on video. In addition, he specifically chose not to attack Mr. Phillips. He said he harbored “no ill will” toward Phillips, respected right to protest, and thanked him for his service.

This kid behaved like the mature adult and the adult behaved like a child here, but the media chose to exclusively target the former.

After the truth came out: Once people started highlighting the longer videos, the narrative started to change. Reason’s Robby Soave posted a widely shared article explaining how the media got it wrong. Most publications and pundits on the right started walking back their original condemnations and posting the truth. However, major outlets and networks continued to push the blatantly false narrative throughout Saturday despite the longer video showing the truth having been available since Friday. Eventually, outlets such as the NYT, WaPo, and CBS News could no longer ignore the facts completely and started posting pieces claiming there were conflicting narratives. 

Once the pushback based on actual evidence started gaining traction, the goal posts started moving. So many people in the media had already set a narrative that these kids were bad that they weren’t willing to admit a mistake or let it go. One Buzzfeed reporter explained that the reaction was justified based on the kids being white and males. Others started passing around a new clipped video of the kids dancing around Phillips as if it showed something that changed the facts above. Then they started desperately trying to dig up unrelated dirt on the kids and the school. CNN Commentator Kirsten Powers insanely argued that the kids were wrong for countering the homophobia and racism of the black Israelites and that the media should have put more emphasis on a random protestor in one of the videos calling them a mob as if that somehow justified her original narrative that the kids were terrible. Then activists started sharing a photo from a Covington High School basketball game in 2011. The New York Daily News picked that up, but got almost all of the facts wrong and insisted this 7-year old photo from the same high school (when the kids involved in the current incident were in elementary school!) was evidence to support the narrative that these kids were bigots. The actual photo includes students painted in black for a blackout game, which is a common occurrence at many schools. Students who were actually at the game spoke up and pointed out how absurd this criticism was. Another video was passed around by reporters and large accounts on Twitter that claimed to show a student from Covington Catholic making a joke about rape, but the HS student involved doesn’t even attend Covington Catholic High School. When confronted with that knowledge, one of the main accounts spreading this video said it doesn’t matter if the kid belonged to the school because it was still “representative” of them. Other celebrities and large accounts on the left accused kids from the school of using Nazi symbols because there was a picture of them showing a 3-point sign in a basketball game. You get the theme. These lies continued to be spread for days, including by members of Congress.  After being proven wrong regarding every aspect of the initial story, these leaders of the mob decided to look for any bit of dirt they could throw out about these kids to justify their initial narrative, regardless of whether it was true. They would not be satisfied until they destroyed these kids.

The consequences of this targeting of kids were death threats and harassment of innocent families and children. Covington Catholic had to close on Tuesday because of the threats against the school. 


The villains of this story:

1. The media for leading the outrage mob. As a liberal Democrat who realized they had been misled by the press on this story pointed out, a news consumer shouldn’t have to watch hours of video themselves to get to the truth. They should be able to rely on the press accounts, but the media proved they couldn’t be trusted with this story. The truth was available to the press; they chose to mostly ignore it until they couldn’t anymore. Even now, many outlets have still refused to correct or hold those who lied accountable. The first major outlet to pick up the story, The Washington Post, wrote an embarrassing follow-up piece justifying the idea of running with a one-sided storyline early on without searching for the truth and trying to portray criticism of them as coming mostly from conspiratorial Trump fanatics. This refusal by the press to engage in any real self-reflection almost guarantees that they will repeat the same mistakes again.

2. Nathan Phillips is an activist who targeted these kids for a confrontation. When he failed to provoke them, he ran to the media with an edited video and lied about every aspect of what happened. He also chose to baselessly and viciously attack the character of these kids. When the kids dared to point out the truth, Phillips responded with more smears and even suggested the school should consider expelling the kids.

3. The Black Hebrew Israelites spend most of the incident yelling nonsense while attacking the children with racist and homophobic slurs. It was actually the children who repeatedly countered and objected to the homophobia and racism these activists displayed. The media has mostly given these adults behaving terribly a pass, instead focusing and targeting the kids. Ironically, it was the extended video from one of these activists that ended up serving as the best exculpatory evidence for these kids.

4. All of the people who jumped on the outrage bandwagon and refused to retract. Some have continued trying to smear and destroy these kids because they don’t want to admit their initial error.

5. Parents, the school, and the Diocese. The question many people asked while watching the videos was: Where are the chaperones? The adults should have intervened and protected these kids from the groups above. Further, the school and Diocese should be ashamed for throwing these kids under the bus right away due to the media-created outrage. 


Finally, the Covington Catholic students. They are at the very bottom of the groups that should be considered villains in this story. While some of them could have behaved better and been more respectful (they could have walked away, one kid could have avoided the tomahawk gesture, others could have avoided chanting in a way that came off as disrespectful), it is worth noting that these kids were by far the most decent and honorable participants in this whole situation. And yet they were and continue to be the targets of the media-led outrage mob. That’s not just unjust, it’s despicable. 

Some more relevant pieces I recommend:

David French wrote an excellent piece in National Review regarding why this outraged many people on the right and reminded them of the Kavanaugh affair. Once against all standards of journalism disappeared because the media had a narrative and targets, only this time those targets were high school children. 

AllahPundit has a worthwhile write-up regarding an accidental, but insightful, admission from Joy Behar regarding why so many were quick to believe the worst about these kids and will not stop trying to come after them.

I also want to give credit to all of the people that got this story wrong at first due to the media narrative, but actually took the time to correct and share the truth. Especially appreciate those who reflected on why they got it wrong. There are too many to name, but it shows character. Those that chose to stick with the lies have shown something else.

Warning: There was just too much content for me to do it justice and include it all here. I recommend people also click the links so they can get full details. This will replace this week’s AG Report. Those who have appreciated my research and attempts to hold the media accountable on this story can sign up for a weekly dose here:

Updates 1/23: 

1) NBC News, the outlet that I identified as being the most irresponsible during the Kavanaugh affair, continued with the pattern of trying to smear the kids and their school with a desperate story about a gay kid who wasn't allowed to give a Valedictorian speech. They portray it as being due to his sexuality, but it actually had a lot more to do with the political nature of the speech. More importantly, the kid didn't even attend Covington Catholic, but instead another high school that shares the same Diocese. Apparently anyone even remotely related to this school or these kids is now a target for a story if it means they can justify maintaining their false narrative.

2) Washington Post opinion columnist Megan McArdle had a very long twitter thread on the whole saga. It covers a lot of the same ground covered in this post, but is still worth your time.

3) Ramesh Ponnuru has an excellent post in Bloomberg today specifically focused on the attempts to justify the smears against these kids with stereotypes:

4) Phillips continued to demonstrate his deplorable character and why he is one of the main villains in the story on Saturday. He led a group of protestors in trying to invade the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception during a Vigil Mass. Trying to disturb religious services is bad enough, but the speech he gave on the steps was even worse. After engaging in the lies and smear campaign shown above, Phillips actually had the chutzpah to deliver a list of demands. Aside from his ridiculous demand for reparations, Phillips also insisted that the Covington Catholic students he has been smearing be "reprimanded" by their school AND future universities. He wants their whole lives destroyed for a crime he invented. 


1) We now have definitive proof that Nathan Phillips has not just misled, but blatantly lied about his military service in the past. This just further shows how unreliable he is as witness. He also lied again when asked about it in an interview today. 

2) This rant from Kevin Williamson was probably the best thing I have read about this whole saga. Williamson emphasizes how all the people who fueled this story need to grow up and started behaving like responsible people and citizens. I highly recommend you go read it for yourselves. 

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